If I were asked to name some of the most iconic songs of all time, I'd probably throw out titles like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," or "Hey Jude." Turns out science has a different answer. Researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London put "Smells Like Teen Spirit," by Nirvana at the top of a list of 50 iconic tunes. It's followed by John Lennon’s “Imagine," U2’s “One,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Computer scientist Dr. Mick Grierson looked at tracks found in seven "Best of" lists from music publications like Rolling Stone and ran them through a program that compared them by key, BPM, chord variety, lyrical content, timbral variety, and sonic variance. Grierson and his team used these findings to calculate what made the "perfect" song.
“We found the most significant thing these songs have in common is that most of them use sound in a very varied, dynamic way when compared to other records,” Grierson told the Daily Mail. “This makes the sound of the record exciting, holding the [listeners'] attention. By the same token, the sounds these songs use and the way they are combined is highly unique in each case.”
Nirvana's breakout track, featured on their second studio album Nevermind, boasts many of the features that the researchers identified as common in popular songs.
Grierson found that the average tempo of the most popular songs was 125BPM, with 40 percent being around 120BPM. Chord changes were relatively infrequent—the songs that fared the best boasted an average of six to eight. Of course, there are some glaring exceptions to these "rules": Led Zepplin's "Stairway to Heaven" has twice as many beats as the average song.
Ultimately, the researchers found that no amount of number-crunching can accurately predict whether or not a song will become a classic. "My conclusion is that if you want a formula for creating great music, there is one: you just have to make something that sounds great," Grierson says.
You can see the full list of tracks over at the Daily Mail.